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A Serendipitous Road Trip to Paso Robles

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By Athena Lucero

Not all roads lead to Paso Robles wine country in California's Central Coast. But in 2015, two events would lure me back to the Golden State's rising star. In May of that year, a visit to then-new Bristols Cider House in the town of Atascadero next door to Paso (the shortened moniker for Paso Robles) introduced me to hard cider made by Neil and Jackie, a brother-and-sister team from Bristol, England, aka cider country, because they couldn't find the refreshing fermented beverage made from apples that they so loved back home. Today, their operation thrives with a loyal following.

In July 2015, while visiting Manchester, England, I wandered into a wine merchant's shop. In its narrow slice of space, a single wall filled end-to-end with fine wines from around the world entranced my curiosity. Knowing I was from California, the store manager pulled open a drawer and revealed a bottle of Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc.

"That's from Paso Robles," I said, touched by this happenstance moment on the other side of the Atlantic.

Fast forward to May 2021 as COVID-19 restrictions began loosening up. My husband and I agreed it was time to celebrate our return to "normal" with a road trip back to rustic Paso, 3.5 hours from Los Angeles. Its wide-open space paints the quintessential California landscape of shady oaks, acres of rolling vineyards and romantic roads winding in between. With 200-plus mostly family-owned wineries spread throughout, we could barely wait for in-person wine tasting again amid Paso's famous warm and laid-back spirit. Today it is California's largest American Viticultural Area (divided into 11 districts), and the state's next major wine region. And then some.

Enter Robert Haas, an American wine merchant and leader in the wine industry, and the esteemed Perrin family of Chateau de Beaucastel located in the Chateauneuf-du-Pape wine region in France's Rhone Valley. In 1987 Haas and the Perrins partnered to grow Rhone grape varietals in Paso Robles after discovering that conditions here are exactly that of the Rhone due to the ideal Mediterranean climate and calcareous limestone, rare in the United States, that allows for the same dry-farming methods of Europe. Eleven miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, hot days dip dramatically to cool nights. With 40- to 60-degree temperature changes in a single day, the diurnal shift here is the largest of any growing region in the country.

 

By 1990, Tablas Creek Vineyard was born, and Haas joined the pioneers of the American Rhone wine movement. Today it is the only winery in the country to have all 14 Chateauneuf-du-Pape grapes, and over the decades its grafting program has made Rhone varietal cuttings available to vineyards around the country. Counoise, Grenache blanc, Grenache noir, Marsanne, Mourvedre, syrah, Roussanne and Viognier are just half of the Rhone varieties.

Suffice it to say, Tablas Creek was our first winery stop. Here Ray King, tasting-room host extraordinaire, offered a fantastic minicourse on the journey of Rhone grapes to America with a tour of the vineyard and a divinely comprehensive tasting session -- emphasizing Paso's spectacular climate for making elegant wines.

"The grapes get cooked during the day," said King, "and then have reprieve overnight to get this nice acidity. The result is naturally well-balanced grapes -- even before we manipulate them into wine."

Following this total-immersion minicourse in Rhone-style wines and Paso's French connection, we called it a day to absorb it all and worked our way back to the lively atmosphere of downtown Paso. Streets lined with shops, art galleries, a movie theater, its popular General Store (that sells more than just provisions) and dining spots just about everywhere were abuzz with locals and visitors heading out to dinner. And in the center of it all, the inviting green space of City Park offered rest and respite, enhanced by soulful tunes, compliments of a passionate saxophonist.

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